What I’m reading, what I’m writing

“A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.”

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

On the reviewing pile.

Having recently signed on with the Glasgow Review of Books, I’m patiently awaiting the arrival of my first assignment. It’s a reprint of a “forgotten” writer’s autobiography, a writer I’ve never heard of but found so intriguing I was happy to say aye.

Reading and more reading.

Meanwhile, I’m engaged in lots of other literary pursuits, natch. I’m working on a review of Ever Dundas’s remarkable Goblin, as well as a pending interview with this gifted debut novelist. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – the IT novel of Summer 2017 – kept me enthralled throughout. I have Muriel Spark’s The Comforters simmering on the back burner, and just started Jenni Daiches’s Borrowed Time. On the Kindle there’s, a review copy of Rushdie’s upcoming The Golden House, featuring a satisfyingly sly portrait of a certain orange president.

Daaaang this was a good read.

Author events wise, Gail Honeyman’s appearing in Edinburgh this week. You don’t need to ask if I’m planning to go, because I’m planning to go.

As for July, current plans are to hit the road late in the month for Austen, Woolf and Bronte country. My son’s visiting the UK for a couple of weeks in early August, then the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Stellar lot of authors this year, but I haven’t picked my must-sees. Best fast-track that.

My reading plate’s full to overflowing, covered in comfort food. It’s a big ol’ buffet full of mashed potatoes, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese that isn’t flourescent orange and doesn’t come from a box. And is that chocolate cake I see on the dessert table?

I think it is (galloping noises).

Incoming! New books on the shelf this week.

When the dollar rose against the pound, I took advantage. Now that it’s inevitably fallen very ouchly, post-UK election kerfuffle, I need to consider cutting back on book purchases.

[Need. Such a vague word, isn’t it? Food, water, clothing, shelter… Got those, but do we not have other needs, less about pure survival, but nevertheless crucial?]

 

But it feels so right

 

Graeme Macrae Burnet climbed atop Mt. TBR after last year’s Man Booker Prize featured his His Bloody Project on its shortlist. If you’ve not heard of it, trot out and find it. I bought The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau because it’s his first novel. I’m planning to read everything he’s written, partly because I’m eyeing the Bloody Scotland literary event in September, and partly because he’s a writer just breaking out into the big time. He’s also the author Ian Rankin recommended when I asked which new Scottish authors should I make sure to read.

The Shore by Sara Taylor, Hotel World by Ali Smith, and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood are three books consisting of inter-connected short stories recommended to me by trusted reading friends. It’s a side project of mine, an interest in studying how writers use this particular framework. They all sound fantastic.

Am writing.

In my free time, I’ve been working on a fiction project of my own, and is it ever slow going. It’s not the first fiction I’ve written, but working on it reminds me how bleeping hard the craft truly is. And the easier prose looks, the tougher it was to write. A writer can’t keep that from allowing a steady flow of absolute shite in the all-important first draft. It’s awful, oh god it’s awful, but it’s supposed to be.

I apply every bit as much severity to what I write as I do the writing of others, and expect the same scrutiny from fellow reviewers. More, actually, because I am an unabashed reading snob, expecting a very high level of quality in published fiction. I jealously guard my reading time. It’s limited, and I refuse to squander it. An advocate of struggling writers, every time I see another sub-par writer published I know dozens more far more talented have been slighted. It makes me very, very angry. I hope other reviewers feel the same, judging accordingly.

It’s a blustery day in Scotland. No better time to curl up and read.

Until next time, happy reading!

 

Booker Shortlist 2016: the blood-letting of Coetzee and Strout

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

 

Once more unto the breach.

The Shortlist is upon us. I protest I have not the time read them, yet I’ve never let this stop me from opining with gusto. I opine because literature is my life – qualification enough.

What’s interesting about this year’s shortlist isn’t only the titles that made it through, but those that didn’t: namely JM Coetzee and Elizabeth Strout. Lesser-to-unknown writers, of impressively eclectic range, leap-frogged right over them, which is the crux of my thesis.

I’ve been witnessed wailing and gnashing my teeth over slights to literary icons, frustrated it’s become fashionable to cry “entitlement” when the successful repeatedly excel. Is the purpose of literary awards not to honor the best of the best?

The purpose of literary awards is to honor the deserving. Politics and political correctness have no moral right to intervene.

And then there were 6:

Two Americans.

Two Brits.

Two Canadians.

News flash: literary icons get to the top through a hell of a lot of hard work. No one hands fame to undeserving writers. Strike that. Usually, undeserving writers don’t make it to award lists.

Okay. One hopes only the best rise to the top.

My argument against unknown writers eking through to the Shortlist is a nomination for the Man Bookers is a nod only a handful of writers will ever receive. Slapping “Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize” stickers on covers boosts sales. Boosting sales raises visibility. And when visibility rises, books get attention. And when books get attention, literary reputations are built. When literary reputations rise, the baton passes to the next generation of great writers.

In other words, they earn it the old fashioned way: writing highest-quality prose.

Honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards are very encouraging. I know that it might sound strange that a writer who has published many books still needs encouragement, but this is true.   – Joyce Carol Oates

Yet, I’m not blind to the other side. Underdogs are exciting; knowing the outcome of a contest is flat boring. This same eclectic group of Shortlisted writers have beaten the crowd, hand-picked by judges – I won’t get into the politics of judging  – who winnowed from who knows how many others, until only these few remained.

Even great writers occasionally stumble: see the list of phenomenal first books whose authors never managed to repeat. I wouldn’t rule out lesser-known writers besting the best of the best. It’s happened, and in these cases previous fame should have no influence. When a writer falters, he deserves no credit for past success. Likewise, when a writer crushes it, accolades are imperative.

The weeding process must, of necessity, be brutal. Sub-par writing deserves no sympathy. It’s here the door’s left cracked for better efforts to squeak past. And it’s here I understand lesser-knowns rising.

“Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” – Witold Gombrowicz

I cannot speak to the quality of Coetzee and Strout’s recent books. I have not read them. I know Coetzee to be a staggering talent, full stop. I’ve read several of his works, and know him as a giant. Even this should give him no advantage here.

Strout’s Olive Kitteridge fairly crushed it, but I know nothing of My Name is Lucy Barton.  Could be she faltered, I do not know. But if she did, all’s fair in love and literature.

I have not read these six left standing. Reviews and blurbs make them all sound remarkable, but then they’re designed to sell.

Literary awards are not the only thing. Books are not defined by awards won. However, literary awards are in place to judge books that have achieved a level of excellence above the rest. It’s a thing apart. None of these books is unworthy, but only one of them is the best of this particular lot. And the one that’s nearest perfection, regardless of who wrote it – their color or gender or ethnic origin or previous fame or  tough life story – should rightly win.

I’d say good luck to them all, but it should never be about luck. May the best win.

Thien

Szalay

Moshfegh


manbooker




Levy

Beatty

Burnet